Monday, April 27, 2015

SNARL: “The Plural of Helen of Troy”

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). This is the first of several actual reviews by me of those nominated works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of: “The Plural of Helen of Troy”, John C. Wright (City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, Castalia House)

I purchased it from Amazon, and read it in Kindle format. Twice I literally passed out while reading it. My eyes drifted closed, and the Kindle slipped from my fingers onto the floor. I have two more novellas, one short story, and a "Best Related Work"  from this author to read, and I will try and read them after I have gone to bed, and the ability to quickly fall into a dreamless sleep without the help of pharmaceuticals will be very worthwhile. I give this book at least half a star for being potentially useful.

The idea of the story is that a pure innocent JFK (yep... John Fitzgerald Kennedy POTUS) who has never had sex with Marilyn Monroe (aka Helen of Troy or HOT) appears as a vision to impure JFK and tells him how he can prevent himself from raping HOT by hiring a PI to shoot a magic-crystal-containing-bathroom-door. This then “pushes anyone passing down that particular artificial spacetime continuum path back into the real spacetime” which causes “the first world holding the original version of this city” to come out of the mist, and almost everyone is saved.

Time travel is a best complicated, and at worst is just stupid. Unfortunately it is rarely at its best, and there is very little middle ground.

There are three big problems with time travel.

The first being that any shifting in time changes the nature of the universe in bizarre ways; energy, mater, and the laws of physics themselves stop making sense when time travel is involved. It is difficult to apply energy, mater, and the laws of physics to the goal of time travel when they stop making sense when you do. Time travel is an actual unsolvable impossible problem, and therefore must rely on the reader's suspension of disbelief in order to be an acceptable part of the story. Whenever an author uses time travel in a story they owe the reader something for not closing their book and moving onto something less silly as soon as they realize time travel is part of the story.

The second problem with time travel is actually the reason why it is such a worthwhile story device for science fiction writers. Time travel introduces paradoxes. A good writer can turn the paradoxes into something that repays the reader for their suspension of disbelief.

The third problem is that time travel too easily devolves into deus ex machina. The lazy writer easily uses time travel to fix continuity or plot elements. Deus ex machina can so quickly become so convoluted in a time travel story that the author must begin inventing special half-baked rules for time travel... rules that in the more insipid stories are seemingly made up whenever the story goes off track, and then begin developing exceptions.

““Time Travel makes everyone's head hurt,” I grumbled. “It should be against the law.”” John C. Wright's character Jacob Quirinus Christoforo Frontino explaining to Helen Of Troy/Marylin Monroe something John C Wright should have taken as advice.

Wright creates a world where time travel is happening so regularly that some structures and devices are actually made of “time stuff”; there is a continual time paradox weather condition called the mist. People and things travel through time in “The Plural of Helen of Troy” using a dizzying array of devices that have different sets of rules and exceptions. There is also real spacetime and artificial spacetime, and differing ability to perceive changes happening in anything. There is a “hard” memory which is involatile to changes caused by manipulations of physics, space and time except when it is altered by amnesia inducing objects which –I assume- cause changes in the “hard” memory by manipulating physics, space and time in some particular way.

Then, in the hopes of creating tension and an artificial reveal at the end (beginning) Wright writes the story in reverse order. It is as if he thinks that making the story confusing enough will hide how awful it is. I was left thinking that the story was confusing enough, and that the author was actively trying not to tell it in a way that would help the reader understand.

Luckily Wright created the gritty fedora-loving PI Jake Frontino who though “a bit unclear on how jet planes fly without a prop” is able to pull out just the right deus ex machina whenever the story has painted the author into a corner. He has a super gun shaped like a Police Special he keeps in a shoulder holster; actually the Police Special is just an aiming unit “The real weapon was the size of a warehouse sitting in a null-time vacuole in the forth-and-a-half dimension”. He also has a dream coffin, an anything maker, and a picture of the American flag that becomes a magic picture window when he whistles at it. The magic picture shows him whatever he wants by simply knowing what is on his mind, and the volume can be controlled by pointing at it.

The science in this science fiction book comes across as if the author believes science is just amalgamating a bunch of important-sounding words together. Get this description of what protagonist Frontino’s police special does when it is shot at something.

“The gun emitted a magnetic force field shaped like a tube to guide the missile to the target and built an invisible set of braces and baffles out of nucleonic energy-tension to suppress the explosion within a five-foot radius. Then the gun focused a time distortion hole on the spot to sweep the wreckage of the door panels and part of the wall sideways out of the continuum, into the non-being between time streams, as the missile plasma ruptured and made a miniature version of the sun.” – What happens when Jake Frontino shoots a wall with his super gun.

There is more to be said about this work. I could point out how the author became tired of the entire cast of history to choose characters from, and dipped into the pool of fictional characters without explanation. I could point out how the author’s description of women was two-dimensional and patronizing; like what would be expected from a young boy who had never really dealt with a female who was not his Mom (at least in his eyes). How he continually used continuum to name something he was describing as a disjoint-ium. But I want to end this on a positive note before it gets as long as the novella itself.

This work was inspirational. I read several passages to AYD, and she stated that: “even the kids in remedial English could write something better than that, maybe someday I will win a Hugo?!”


Happy Turtle said...

In this story, Jack Kennedy dies for our sins so we can be born again on the moon.

I could have gone along with the chronobabble. I like time travel stories. But not for that ending. That ending makes no possible sense.

adult onset atheist said...

I don’t dislike time travel stories, but it is too easy for them to jump the shark, and this one introduced Moby Dick’s harpoonist in order to facilitate its jumping a time-traveling whale shark. Some of my favorite stories involve time travel, but it is usually either purposefully foolish (Dr Who) or treated with great respect (A Sound of Thunder – Ray Bradbury). Interestingly Dr Who has received more Hugo nominations than Ray Bradbury ever did. Bradbury did win a retro Hugo when in 2004 time-traveling Worldcon members traveled back to 1954 and voted him one for Fahrenheit 451.